Environmentally sustainable interior design: A snapshot of current supply of and demand for green, sustainable or Fair Trade products for interior design practice


Traditionally the interior design profession has concerned itself with a one-dimensional practice, to provide aesthetic enhancements to an interior space for a client (Cargo, 2013). Indeed, Yang et al. (2011) describe traditional interior design as relatively backward and conservative, only focusing on fashion, luxury design in small environments; an approach that ignores energy savings and emissions reduction, as well as the harmful effects on consumers’ mental and physical health, and environmental pollution (Yang et al., 2011).

However in recent years interior design practice has seen a dramatic shift with design strategies that now focus on providing healthy and sustainable environments for individual’s to live, work and play in (Bonda and Sosnowchick, 2007). Society is beginning to recognise the interconnectedness of buildings, people and community in the creation of an environmentally responsible built environment; clients are beginning to understand their role and impact on the environment. As a result they are seeking interiors that demonstrate environmentally responsible, sustainable design (Mazarella et al., 2011 and Cargo, 2013).

This interest in environmental responsibility is what has sparked the context and need for environmentally sustainable interior design (ESID) (Jones, 2008).
1.2. Environmentally sustainable interior design (ESID)

ESID is based on the sustainable design principles and strategies common to the built environment as a whole, namely providing physiologically and psychologically healthy indoor environments (Fisk and Rosenfeld, 1997 and Kang and Guerin, 2009).

Often the terms green and sustainable are used interchangeably in design. However it is necessary to provide a distinction between the two. In this paper, green design refers to a focus on people issues – their health, safety and welfare; whilst sustainable design encompasses a more global approach – the health, safety and welfare of the planet, so that it is possible for this generation to meet their needs without jeopardising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). In addition it is appropriate to consider Fair-trade goods, aimed at helping producers in developing countries achieve better trade conditions and to promote sustainability. There is a focus on getting a better price, decent working conditions and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers worldwide (Fairtrade Foundation, 2014).

The term ESID encompasses all three concepts and it is the responsibility of those charged with creating interior spaces in the built environment to implement ESID in both new-build and in the renovation/retrofit of existing buildings.

In order to achieve this a holistic approach is required, ‘one in which all systems and materials are designed with an emphasis on integration into a whole, for the purpose of minimising negative impacts on the environment and occupant and maximising positive impacts on environment, economic and social systems over the life cycle of a project’ (Kang and Guerin, 2009 p.180).

Therefore, in comparison with traditional design practices, where designers are primarily focussed on meeting the clients’ aesthetic and functional needs, ESID focuses on the materials’ intended application, aesthetic qualities, environmental and health impacts, availability, ease of instalment and maintenance, and initial and life cycle costs (Cargo, 2013 and Moussatche et al., 2002; Pile, 2003).

Although ESID has become a major issue in interior design practice, according to the literature the frequency with which interior designers make sustainable choices in real practice is still limited (e.g. Cargo, 2013, Kusumarini et al., 2011 and Kang and Guerin, 2009). This ‘sustainability gap’, as described by Steig (2006), is the disparity that exists between the principles of ESID and the reality of practice. It is characterised by a lack of connection made by designers between their practice and the resulting environmental impacts of that practice (Steig, 2006).

Discussion & Conclusion

5. Discussion

The results of the desk study demonstrate the wide range of GSFT products that are currently in the marketplace (including fabrics, window treatments, surface materials, flooring, walls and ceilings) and indeed many of these materials and products could be sourced from the retail outlets surveyed for this research project.

However in the first instance it was not easy to establish which of the products were GSFT and frequently the researcher had to look through volumes of material, relying on personal knowledge and manufacturers’ literature to determine the provenance of the materials marketed. Sourcing products in this way is inefficient and time consuming and has been highlighted as a barrier to engaging in ESID in the literature (e.g. Moussatche et al., 2002 and Cargo, 2013). Indeed Kang and Guerin (2009) found that the effort required to gain knowledge about sustainable materials and products was considered too time consuming for the pressures of designers’ schedules.

Only a small number of the retailers interviewed actively encourage their customers to purchase GSFT materials and products. This research demonstrated that a majority of retailers do not have enough information on the provenance of materials to hand, and do not promote the benefits of GSFT products. This is in line with Cargo’s (2013) research, which has demonstrated that whilst vendors and showrooms can offer data about their materials and products, this information is very basic and restricted. The sole job of the vendor is to sell their product, so they are unlikely to tell a designer of the harmful or hazardous aspects of the material or product (Cargo, 2013).

This reluctance to promote GSFT may also reflect their belief that people are not aware of the benefits of either sustainable or green materials and therefore not engaged in ESID. If they perceived that there was a greater demand for GSFT products, the retailers may choose to promote these materials more effectively. This echoes Moussatche et al. (2002) research, which shows that materials selection is still driven by clients’ preferences, needs, aesthetics and cost, not considering sustainability as a criterion.

Maté (2006) found evidence that those who championed ESID displayed certain attributes and behaviours, which included questioning the authenticity of GSFT materials. The fact that the retailers taking part in this study reported so few incidences where customers had requested GSFT products suggests one or both of the following are true:

Designers and clients practising and promoting ESID are already using databases and or sourcing their materials and products from sustainability specialists rather than going to trade retailers, where they know the process will be more protracted and time consuming; or

There is a significant sustainability gap, as coined by Steig (2006), where a disparity exists between the principles of ESID and the reality of practice. Despite having knowledge of sustainability, there is a lack of connection made by designers between their practice and the resulting environmental impacts of that practice (Steig, 2006).

6. Conclusions and recommendations

The paradigm shift from environmental irresponsibility to environmentally responsible design including ESID is challenging those who are responsible for the built environment; and as clients they are demanding sustainable solutions from their designers.

Research has shown that although designers’ knowledge of ESID and interest in embracing it has grown, this has not necessarily to always translate into action, particularly where materials selection is concerned (Maté, 2009). There remains a gap between theory and practice coined ‘the sustainability gap’ (Steig, 2006).

As demonstrated in this research, GSFT fabrics, window treatments, surface materials, flooring, and walls and ceiling products are all readily available to enable ESID. The issue is how these materials are promoted for their green and sustainable credentials and how designers, and the public as a whole, source them. Better access to a basic knowledge of sustainability as well as more up-to-date information about sustainable materials will play a critical role in promoting sustainable practice (Maté, 2009).

However, as evidenced by the literature, even practitioners well grounded in the principles of ESID, lack adequate information regarding the materials and products they specify (Steig, 2006). This research project confirmed just how difficult it is to find information on the provenance of materials, which could suggests the benefits of using databases for the sourcing and specification of sustainability products. By using third party sources such as environmentally sustainable material selection databases, interior designers could access greater information as well as a more diverse selection of materials and products to compare to one another (Cargo, 2013).

This would not however resolve the issue of improving the profile of GSFT materials and products in ‘mainstream’ retail outlets. Wider used of ‘Eco-labels’ and ‘Green Stickers’ for products could promote awareness and support voluntary adoption whilst increased legislation, regulation and the extension of green building certification schemes to include internal fit out would significantly impact on the specification and procurement of GSFT products.

Ultimately environmental sustainability requires a significant change in values, attributes and behaviours amongst interior designers (Mabogunje, 2004), which this research and the literature suggest the industry is yet to see.

Once these issues have been resolved, designers will be in a better position to meet the needs of their clients by creating green and sustainable indoor environments with the same ease as they do when they design using a ‘traditional’ approach, but with far reaching results.

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